Opinion by Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group chief operating officer, south Asia, middle east and north Africa and Americas, VFS Global 

One of the most positive expectations from 2021 is the hope of new Covid-19 vaccine programmes being rolled out in different parts of the globe, which will in turn increase confidence in the travel process once again. Travellers, who have been waiting with bated breath for the chance to dust off their suitcases after a long year of being indoors, will now step out with a significant shift in perception of holiday destinations, safety, the trustworthiness of these locations, caution around the air and local travel, and hygiene concerns.

The travel industry is looking to adopt a more digital ‘contactless’ approach for most of the travel value chain – from planning to consumer engagement, to assure the highest standards of safety.

According to the BOTT Travel Sentiment Tracker, 63 per cent of Indians surveyed said they were looking forward to travel again once the Covid-19 curve flattens, and 66 per cent of those surveyed said they would want to do so within the first three-six months of borders reopening for international travellers. With several new travel considerations in place now, here’s a look at ways people will plan their travel differently in 2021:

  • Exploring exclusive experiences

Millennial travel has for long been highlighted by red-eye flights, hostels and short-term private accommodation rentals, group travel packages, and local public transport. However, given the lens of physical distance through which people will now view all human touch-points, travellers will increasingly seek more exclusive and isolated travel experiences. These will potentially feature off-season travel, private villas that allow you to check the health and sanitation standards beforehand, workations, non-urban destinations, solo/small group trips, private transport (cabs, cycles, walking) – anything that helps one avoid sharing space with too many strangers.

According to the Thomas Cook and SOTC Holiday Readiness Survey Report, 72 per cent respondents said that they would now prefer only reputed brands across their journey – including tour operators, hotel chains – with 35 per cent ready to increase their spends for this, in order to accommodate increased health and safety concerns.

  • Digitalised travel planning

With the heightened caution around health and safety now, travellers will increasingly seek out travel companies that provide them with the luxury and comfort of completing their planning and booking processes from home, where they can avoid human touchpoints. Online travel planners, ‘doorstep’ visa services, eVisa services, courier for passport return, self-check-in kiosks at airports will take over traditional customer servicing.

In an effort to meet these growing demands, the industry is at the cusp of evolution towards digitalising operations – evidenced by innovations in IoT such as connecting your phone to your luggage to locate it faster and avoid queues, hotel keys checking you in automatically without having to stop at the reception, and digital health passports ensuring digital verifications on medical status.

  • Planning with precision

For some time now, impromptu, overnight trips to short-haul destinations, cross-country back-packing, and other whimsical travel plans may soon take a backseat. Travellers will now choose to spend time planning longer holidays, having well-researched their holiday destination through the lens of safety, hygiene, and vaccination status. They will try ensuring that they do not have to opt for any accommodation or transport they haven’t had the time to carefully vet.

  • Second-city travel

Holiday destinations are often key cities or epicentres of travel for the country – a place that’s thronging with tourists, overloaded with local businesses, all aimed at making the most of tourist season. This may see a gradual shift post-Covid. People will now choose to give these high-profile cities a miss, and instead explore lesser-known, quieter towns in the same country, where they can afford a reprieve from crowds. This not only helps reduce over-tourism and environmental impact but will also mean travellers can explore without coming into contact with too many people.

  • A new travel-peak

Since 2020 put a wrench in the entire travel season, we will most likely witness a later travel spike in the course of 2021, once international borders are relaxed, tourist visas get less stringent, and vaccinations are in full swing. This would also mean travellers will now have to start booking their travel far in advance, to ensure that flights and accommodations are not taken up by the sudden influx of people that will now step out.

While travel will definitely resume and give people the chance to see the world again, every aspect of it will now be under a microscope of health and safety. The prudent new traveller is sure to make their decisions based on how efficient and convenient the offerings are in this new reality. The progress made by travel companies during this period will have to be aligned with these new expectations – towards a smarter, safer, and more sustainable future.